Responding to Reading Instruction in a Primary ...

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Responding to Reading Instruction in a Primary-Grade Classroom Kouider Mokhtari, Leah Porter, Patricia Edwards



or many reading researchers and practitioners, the Response to Intervention (RTI) initiative is arguably a new approach for the early identification of students with reading problems. It is conceivably a new method for providing expert reading instruction and for accurately placing eligible children in special education programs. At the core of RTI in reading are the notions that struggling readers are identified early, that they are provided with welltimed, intensive, expert reading instruction to enable them to catch up with their achieving peers, and that they are placed in special education services only if and when the provision of intensive and expert reading instruction has not resulted in significant advances in their reading development. Pedagogically, RTI is a tiered framework for instructional delivery, which includes increasingly intensified levels, or tiers, of high-quality instruction matched to the student’s needs. In recent years, RTI has received increased attention from reading researchers, policymakers, and classroom teachers. In the past two years, it was rated by a select group of prominent reading professionals as one of the top five “very hot” topics in the annual survey of what’s hot and what’s not in literacy (Cassidy & Cassidy, 2008, 2009), alongside the topics of adolescent literacy, English-language learners, high-stakes assessment, and literacy coaching. A message one often gets from surveys such as this is that reading experts are united around the idea that RTI offers great promise for creating dramatically more powerful, multitiered, responsive reading instruction programs aimed at significantly enhancing the reading achievement of all students, especially those who struggle to become literate. As teacher educators and classroom teachers, we are

encouraged by the widespread level of enthusiasm and support for constructively responsive reading instruction and for the commitment to providing all students with adequate opportunities for becoming effectively literate. However, we are somewhat concerned that such insights often leave us with the illusion that RTI is sufficiently well understood, practiced, and documented in classrooms and reading clinics in the real world. To our knowledge, we have little or no evidence with respect to whether (a) reading teachers have sufficient knowledge of RTI and its intent, structures, and challenges, (b) they are adequately prepared to design and implement expert, multitiered reading instruction that is responsive to student needs, and (c) they have the expertise and resources to systematically document the potential effectiveness of RTI relative to its dual purposes of preventing serious reading problems and placing students in special education services. In our efforts to better understand RTI in its purest form, learn how to do it, and prepare teacher candidates to design and implement responsive reading instruction in classrooms and clinical settings, it is important to recognize the complexities and challenges involved in RTI design, implementation, and evaluation. We are encouraged by the recent addition of a new department (edited by Douglas Fuchs and Lynn Fuchs) in The Reading Teacher, which will be devoted to RTI in reading. Starting with the November 2009 issue (Volume 63, Number 3) of the journal, this department features a series of articles addressing issues that should help teacher educators, reading teachers, and reading specialists better understand and incorporate RTI reading instruction in diverse instructional settings. In the first article in the series,

The Reading Teacher, 63(8), pp. 692–697 DOI:10.1598/RT.63.8.9

© 2010 International Reading Association ISSN:0034-0561 print / 1936-2714 online

entitled “Responsiveness to Intervention: Multilevel Assessment and Instruction as Early Intervention and Disability Identification,” Fuchs and Fuchs introduced a general framework for understanding RTI. In this article, they described the complexities involved in RTI as follows: RTI is complex in its intent and scope. It is also complex in terms of structure (multiple levels) and because various kinds of assessments (screenings and progress monitoring) must be integrated meaningfully with different forms of instruction (core, small-group, and individualized). It is challenging for another reason: It requires close coordination of services delivered by different personnel at different prevention levels (e.g., teachers at primary prevention, paraprofessionals at secondary prevention, reading specialists or special educators at tertiary prevention). Doing RTI right is not for the faint of heart. It requires commitment, energy, teamwork, and smarts. But the potential payoff of doing it is large. (Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L.S., 2009, p. 251)

We concur. We also have a deep level of appreciation and respect for teachers who are trying to implement RTI in their schools, classrooms, and clinical settings. In our experiences working with teachers and reading specialists, we often find that many are reluctant to incorporate RTI principles in their teaching, simply because they do not feel adequately prepared to design and implement responsive reading instruction following RTI guidelines. Other teachers feel their schools and districts lack the training and resources needed to implement RTI at the district, school, and classroom levels. However, we also find that teachers with experiences and training in approaches such as curriculum-based measurements, Reading Recovery, and speech-language sciences appear to have a natural predisposition to engage in responsive reading instruction like RTI in their classrooms. In this article, we present a snapshot of how one kindergarten and Reading Recovery teacher, Leah Porter (coauthor), incorporates RTI principles in her teaching, which enables her to provide constructively responsive small-group and one-on-one reading instruction for her developing and struggling readers. We conclude by offering a few suggestions, based on lessons learned from Leah’s experiences, that are designed to show one way of organizing classroom instruction that is responsive to all student needs. In doing so, our purpose is to illustrate how instruction can be organized in one classroom without

endorsing any particular program or prescribing how a specific method of organizing reading instruction ought to be conceived or practiced.

Responding to Reading Instruction Within a Reading Recovery Framework The notions that struggling readers should be identified early and that many of them can significantly advance their reading development to catch up with their achieving peers date back nearly 25 years (and perhaps earlier), according to Allington (2009), when Marie Clay first introduced the Reading Recovery program in the United States (Clay, 1985). Clay advocated using assessments to determine student needs, but cautioned that “the teacher needs assessments that tell her about the child’s existing repertoire and how he is getting to those responses, and whether he is relating information from one area of competency to another” (Clay, 2002, p. 144). She also advocated for providing intensive, expert tutoring to the lowestachieving first graders in each school. The goal was to tutor students so as to “accelerate” their reading development, so they could catch up to their normally achieving peers. Despite some criticisms, Reading Recovery has had much success in accelerating at-risk students’ reading development, as documented in research reviews and studies (e.g., D’Agostino & Murphy, 2004; Schmitt, Askew, Fountas, Lyons, & Pinnell, 2005; Schwartz, 2005). The success of Reading Recovery, which shares key RTI principles in its approach (e.g., early identification of reading difficulties, progress monitoring, placement, and intensive, expert, oneon-one instruction delivered with a high degree of fidelity), although experienced mostly in primarygrade classroom settings, can and should be tapped for struggling readers in other grades as well. Within the Reading Recovery instructional framework, students recommended for the program are given Clay’s Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement (Clay, 2002), which targets a variety of critical early literacy tasks, including concepts about print, writing vocabulary, hearing and recording sounds in words, letter identification, word reading, and running records. The diagnostic assessment data obtained from the survey are used for discriminating

Responding to Reading Instruction in a Primary-Grade Classroom


students based on their academic abilities and for beginning to understand their individual learning needs. This analysis provides the information necessary to develop initial lessons for the students that are within their respective zones of proximal development. Observation is thus at the heart of the assessment and instruction processes. It helps teachers better understand students’ needs while making on-the-run instructional adjustments based on how the students respond to instruction (Clay, 2002). Systematically observing what a student is able to accomplish independently during the assessment and instruction processes provides the tools necessary for understanding where and how to focus instruction and how to monitor student progress in achieving predetermined learning goals. Once a student has started working on lessons, assessments continue to be conducted on a regular basis—at times on a daily basis. Running records, tracking known reading and writing words, and general observations of progress allow teachers to develop the supports necessary for continued growth. Paying close attention to how students respond to both assessment and instruction is critical for designing effective reading instruction and advancing student achievement. In the next section, we describe how Leah has made the transition from providing responsive reading instruction to individual at-risk readers in a Reading Recovery setting to a classroom setting with a group of students exhibiting diverse reading strengths and needs.

Responding to Reading Instruction in Leah’s Kindergarten Classroom As a kindergarten and Reading Recovery teacher, Leah is in the unique position of tackling two very different responsibilities simultaneously. After training in Reading Recovery, she realized that her views about reading assessment and instruction, and about students as learners, changed dramatically—specifically, how she interpreted students’ reading assessments and how she used the information gained to design appropriate instruction for her students. She wanted to develop and implement an instructional framework that is informed by assessment data and


The Reading Teacher      Vol. 63, No. 8      May 2010

responsive to individual, small-group, and largegroup instruction within her kindergarten classroom. First, it was important for Leah to develop a way to organize the beginning-of-the-year assessments in a manner that would help in discriminating guided reading groups. For kindergarten, she used letter identification and concepts about print to formulate groups initially. It was also equally important to allow time to observe students independently in reading and writing activities. This process allowed her the opportunity to utilize the assessment information by comparing it to the students’ capabilities. By examining student reading behaviors, instruction could be developed to closely match the needs of her students, which allowed for efficient acceleration of their reading development. Figure 1 is an example of a basic framework Leah uses for capturing and organizing information about individual students with similar instructional needs. As Leah worked with students on their identified reading needs, she consistently monitored their progress through daily observations and biweekly assessment measures using running records. This monitoring provided data for understanding how students were progressing and insight into what specific aspects of reading or writing instruction could be emphasized. She conducted a running record every time she met with a guided reading group, which provided data on each student’s growth in developing specific reading skills and strategies. She did this by having the whole group reread the new book from the previous lesson. During that time, she focused on one student’s reading and completed a running record of the student’s work. These running records provided a great deal of information about which reading behaviors the students had under control and which reading skills they needed to develop next. As an experienced Reading Recovery teacher, Leah found the transition from working with one student to working with small groups of students quite easy to manage during guided reading lessons. The careful monitoring of instruction enabled her to easily determine when students needed assistance and how to group them for specific reading skills and strategies instruction. Her keen awareness of each of her students’ needs and her sense of how they responded to the guided reading instruction were critically important in organizing and managing instruction that was best suited to their individual strengths and needs.

Figure 1 Student Observation Sheet

Student:______________________________________________________ Date:________________________ Concepts about print:_____________________________ Letter identification:________________________ Independent behaviors:______________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ Tentative behaviors:__________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________

Responding to Reading Instruction in Your Classroom The following suggestions are designed to assist interested teachers in responding to reading instruction in their own classrooms. They are inspired by Leah’s experiences in identifying her students’ needs, designing and implementing reading instruction lessons that are responsive to individual students’ needs, and monitoring progress to ensure that students have an opportunity to accelerate their own reading development.

Take Time to Assess Students’ Reading Strengths and Needs Yourself With so many responsibilities, classroom teachers often find it challenging and time consuming to assess each student individually. Many teachers choose to delegate student assessment to another school professional. Leah recommends investing time to assess students yourself by using informal and formal assessment measures. Taking time to assess individual students’ needs enables teachers to experience firsthand how students respond to assessments and how to best interpret the results obtained. Knowing how students perform and respond to assessments can be very helpful in designing instruction targeting student strengths and needs.

Use the Assessment Data Obtained to Inform Instructional Decisions In addition to assessing students yourself, Leah encourages teachers to take time to examine students’ assessment data to determine their strengths and needs. Ask for assistance from fellow teachers and school staff, if needed. Use the insights gained from this analysis to develop an instructional lesson framework for teaching specific reading skills and strategies to the whole class. Carefully note how students respond to instruction to develop ideas for small-group and individualized guided reading instruction.

Monitor Students’ Reading Behaviors Individually and in Groups Observation of students when they are independently engaged in a reading task provides valuable information about which concepts they have under control and which ones need attention. A great time to do this is during independent reading time in the classroom. As students read, the teacher should take time to monitor, record, and reflect on students’ reading behaviors and growth. It is beneficial to monitor their reading behaviors when working individually as well as in groups. The information gleaned from such monitoring will help refine reading instruction for individuals and groups of students.

Responding to Reading Instruction in a Primary-Grade Classroom


Organize Instruction for Groups of Students Based on Similar Needs Organizing instruction for specific groups of students enables the teacher to plan and implement guided reading instruction focused on areas of needs common to all students in the group. It is important to prioritize key reading concepts for instructional purposes. Reading groups can be organized in various ways, including by ability or by key reading competencies or concepts. Developing concept-based instruction for students creates teachable moments focused on specific reading needs, which can be used to scaffold instruction in individual, smallgroup, and large-group instructional settings.

Document How Students Respond to Assessment and Instruction After students have been organized into groups, it is important to keep track of their individual progress and reflect and modify lessons as needed. Continue to observe reading and writing behaviors to track independent growth for students in each group. When planning lessons, keep them simple but focused on

specific reading needs. Figure 2 provides an example of how to keep track of instruction and monitor student progress. You may also find it useful to keep track of books that have been read by the group and the number of new words learned. Keeping complete and accurate records of student successes and challenges will help the teacher continuously monitor instruction, fine-tune it as needed, and advance students’ reading development.

Reflect on Your Instructional Practices in Light of Student Performance It is helpful to take time to reflect on your own teaching periodically as you monitor student reading success. Examining and questioning your instructional practices allows for growth in your own thinking about reading assessment and instruction. Being reflective about what you do and how you do it will help you determine what worked well, what did not work, and what needs to be done to address challenges related to teaching and learning. Such reflection allows the teacher to learn continuously and grow professionally.

Figure 2 Guided Reading Lessons

Date:________________________ Text: __________________________________________________________ Concept: ___________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ Focus: _____________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ Goal:_______________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ Ideas for next lesson:________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________ Note. This form can be duplicated and completed for subsequent lessons.


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The description of the classroom scenario and suggestions provided are based on Leah’s experiences in creating an instructional framework that was inspired by her Reading Recovery training and teaching experiences. This framework has provided her with a dynamic yet flexible process for identifying student needs, using assessment to inform instruction, establishing a goal-oriented lesson framework for organizing reading instruction in various settings: whole class, small guided reading groups, and oneon-one tutorials. Having an instructional framework, which she faithfully adhered to throughout the year, also allowed her to be critical and thoughtful about her own teaching and professional development. Clearly, this classroom-based instructional framework, which shares some elements of RTI, is far less complex than the ways in which RTI is viewed and practiced at the school and district levels. We encourage readers to consult existing resources developed by RTI experts Fuchs and Fuchs (e.g., Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2006; Fuchs, L.S., & Fuchs, D., 2009), which provide excellent information regarding RTI’s intent, scope, structures, and challenges. We also encourage readers to consult future issues of The Reading Teacher, which features a series of articles addressing RTI in instructional settings of interest to reading researchers, teacher educators, and reading specialists. References Allington, R.L. (2009). What really matters in Response to Intervention: Research-based designs. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Cassidy, J., & Cassidy, D. (2008). What’s hot for 2008. Reading Today, 25(4), 1, 10–11. Cassidy, J., & Cassidy, D. (2009). What’s hot for 2009. Reading Today, 26(4), 1, 8–9. Clay, M.M. (1985). The early detection of reading difficulties. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Clay, M.M. (2002). An observation survey of early literacy achievement (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. D’Agostino, J.V., & Murphy, J.A. (2004). A meta-analysis of Reading Recovery in United States schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 26(1), 23–28. doi:10.3102/01623737026001023 Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L.S. (2006). Introduction to Response to Intervention: What, why, and how valid is it? Reading Research Quarterly, 41(1), 93–99. doi:10.1598/RRQ.41.1.4 Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L.S. (2009). Response to Intervention (RTI) in reading responsiveness to intervention: Multilevel assessment and instruction as early intervention and disability identification. The Reading Teacher, 63(3), 250–252. doi:10.1598/ RT.63.3.10 Fuchs, L.S., & Fuchs, D. (2009). On the importance of a unified model of responsiveness to intervention. Child Development Perspectives, 3(1), 41–43. doi:10.1111/j.1750-8606.2008.00074.x Schmitt, M.C., Askew, B.J., Fountas, I.C., Lyons, C.A., & Pinnell, G.S. (2005). Changing futures: The influence of Reading Recover y in the United States. Worthington, OH: Reading Recovery Council of North America. Schwar t z, R.M. (20 05). Literacy lear ning of at-r isk fir stgrade students in the Reading Recover y early inter vention. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(2), 257–267. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.97.2.257

Mokhtari teaches at Iowa State University, Ames, USA; e-mail [email protected] Porter is a Reading Recovery and kindergarten teacher in the Holt Public School district near Lansing, Michigan, USA; e-mail [email protected] Edwards teaches at Michigan State University, Lansing, USA; e-mail [email protected]

The department welcomes reader comments. Kouider Mokhtari teaches at Iowa State University, Ames, USA; e-mail [email protected] Patricia Edwards teaches at Michigan State University, Lansing, USA; e-mail [email protected]

Responding to Reading Instruction in a Primary-Grade Classroom


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